Dairy producers across northern Europe should be concerned by further developments at France’s first mega-dairy, Mille Vaches. As its name suggests, this methane and milk factory has been built to house a thousand cows.

There is widespread opposition to this environmentally impactful project in France, which will cram hundreds of cattle into an industrial unit overlooking the Somme estuary. Located just north of Abbeville, the dairy borders a patchwork of EU-protected birdlife habitats. The site covers 18 hectares and is also home to an industrial-scale methane digester, which turns slurry and manure into concentrated residue, called digestate, that is taken off the site and spread on fields during the growing season. Between the dairy and the digester, the site has been given authorisation to extract  up to 40,000 cubic metres of water a year from the estuary.

Mille Vaches was devised by building entrepreneur Michel Ramery, who recruited a local mayor as his architect on the project. This conflict of interests has hindered local residents’ opposition to the project. As a result, authorisation has been given to install 500 milking cows and the rest of the herd within 600 metres of the nearest human habitation. This bends the current regulation that requires 500 metres separation for a herd of 200 animals and thereby creates a potential health hazard for diseases that can jump from cattle to humans (zoonosis).

French mega dairyIn September, Ramery pre-empted the authorisation procedure by moving in 150 cattle under cover of darkness with police protection. As soon as it was clear what had happened, the site was blockaded by local residents and the peasant farmers’ union, la Confédération paysanne (la Conf’), which has staged direct actions on the site throughout the past year. Police were called back in, to escort tankers collecting milk for the dairy dessert manufacturer Senoble, which has a depot 30 miles away.

To break the log-jam of an increasingly bitter blockade, French farm minister Stéphane Le Foll summoned the protagonists to a meeting at the ministry in Paris on 16th September. With the site already in use, the minister accepted an earlier authorisation for 500 cows, but rejected any subsequent upward revisions of the number of animals, without a fresh application. For his part, Ramery promised to mothball half the digester line capacity as a condition of his planning authorisation.

What looks like a concession by Ramery is nothing more than an operational adjustment for what could still become Europe’s largest biodigester. With two digester lines it has an installed 1.3MW capacity – each digester vessel is equivalent to four double decker buses in size, with room to spare. So long as the site is limited to 500 cows, Ramery only needs half the digester capacity anyway. But while the second half of the line remains, so does the threat of a fresh application for a 1,000-cow holding.

As well as claiming the subsidies available for renewable power, Ramery’s business plan is based on two revenue streams: surplus electricity generated onsite by the methanisation plant and milk. Most holdings can only provide one source of income.

So why does Mille Vaches change anything? In a bid to tempt French dairy processors to switch their intake away from existing sources, Ramery is promising to sell his milk for EUR 270/tonne (less than GBP 0.22/litre) – a huge reduction on the prevailing EUR 350/tonne (GBP 0.28/litre). The predictable effect on French manufacturing prices will be to generate further downward pressure in a dairy sector that is already struggling. By declaring a suicidal price, Ramery has opened the door to sagging milk prices further afield.

On the face of it, an extra three or four million litres a year on the European milk market might not sound a lot, but much of the sector is already on its knees. Mille Vaches’s milk will push down producer prices across Europe. By flooding the market with milk (now EU milk quotas have ended) big dairy units will increase the pressure on smaller dairy producers to give up. The environmental costs of intensification are simply absent from balance sheets – the true cost of industrial production is concealed by the accounting process. These costs are called ‘externalities’ for a reason.

La Confédération paysanne is mobilising on 28th October in support of nine members who face charges arising from earlier actions against the Mille Vaches project. To make their point to a wider public, Conf’ members will hold a mock trial for the “gravediggers” of agriculture outside the court in Amiens.

Conf’ national spokesman Laurent Pinatel sees no future for family farming if Mille Vaches is allowed to continue: “We cannot co-exist alongside factories like Mille Vaches: it is peasants or factories.” Pinatel has already challenged the French farm minister over his official promotion of agro-ecology. The minister was unable to curb this increasing industrialisation of agriculture as his forward-looking law for the future of agriculture passed through the French parliament.

Supporting and signing the Conf’s online petition is easier than it looks! Just remember to fill in all the boxes and to tick the country box, the UK (Royaume-Uni) is towards the top of the pull-down country listing menu. The Conf’ is also canvassing for donations to the defence fund.

Featured image by Adam Fagen

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